Review: Enlightened, Season 1 (White and Dern, 2011)

Still from the TV series Enlightened, Season 1

Still from the TV series Enlightened, Season 1

We originally started watching this HBO series because my friend is friends with one of the show’s producers, and he got us tickets to a panel about Enlightened at the 13th annual SF Sketchfest. To try to make the panel more interesting, we decided to watch as many episodes as we could in the few days we had. Lucky for us, each episode is a little less than half an hour, so we were able to cram in almost seven before making our way to the panel at the Marines’ Memorial Theatre in downtown San Francisco. (It happened to be on the first rainy day we’ve had in the Bay Area since last September!)

My original reception of the show was lukewarm. First of all, the main character Amy Jellicoe (played by Laura Dern, one of the show’s creators) is more than a little off-putting. Dern and the show’s other creator, Mike White (who plays the character Tyler in the show and wrote School of Rock and Nacho Libre as well as the lesser known Orange County and The Good Girl), discussed Amy’s personality at the panel, saying that viewers would often come up to them and say, “I know someone like Amy. She’s terrifying.” It helped me to appreciate the show more, hearing White and Dern say that they wanted to put a difficult female personality like Amy Jellicoe on TV. And they were happy to hear the strong responses people had to her, even negative ones, because it meant that she had struck a chord.

Amy does strike a chord with me. She reminds me of people I know, maybe even myself at times, or perhaps what we could see ourselves becoming if we unraveled enough. The same could be said of all the other characters in the show (perhaps even more so, because they are the subtler, sometimes more realized backdrop to Amy’s screaming  personality), particularly Tyler, Amy’s mother (played by Laura Dern’s real mother), and Amy’s ex-husband (Luke Wilson). Sometimes watching the show is like watching a car wreck about to happen and hoping to God it’s avoided, then seeing the car wreck happen despite all your prayers, and finally wallowing in its ugly aftermath. There’s a recognizable slice of life in there, even if it’s the slice we’d rather not remember.

These weren’t my thoughts after watching the first episode, though. When we had finished the pilot, I glanced over at my husband and wondered how I could suggest not watching anymore without seeming too negative. Before I had a chance to say anything, he looked back at me and asked, “Should we start the next episode?”

It grew on me, but I have to say it almost didn’t. Here’s the main reason why: the voice-overs. Mike White talked a lot about how HBO kept trying to get him to take out the voice-overs. He seemed a little irritated by the notion. But the voice-overs are seriously cheesy, coating each episode with its tidily expressed little zen epiphany. Laura Dern’s voice floats out like a meditation soundtrack, and every other thing she says sounds false and corny. Besides the voice-overs, I also thought that some of the scenes got a little redundant. Amy disappointed in her ex-husband, Amy flipping out over her friend’s betrayals, Amy emotionally blockaded by her mother, Amy clueless and pushing her desires all over everyone, Amy in a rage. I know that repetition is real. In life, we often do play out the same scenes over and over again, never seeming to get anywhere, before we realize suddenly that we have gone somewhere all this time, little by little. But I don’t know if I need to see that in a TV show. I don’t know if it comes through.

Now that I’ve watched a full season (and there are only two), I can safely say that I want to continue watching the second season. Nevertheless, I can’t wholeheartedly recommend the show to everyone else. If you do decide to give it a try, push beyond the pilot. It gets better. And there are at least a hundred people in San Francisco who loved the show enough to pay $30 to watch the cast and creators talk about it, and you could tell from their questions and their whispered comments that they really did love it. So there you go.